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Kaiser HMO to Computerize Patient Records

Times Staff Writer

Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO in California, announced a $1.8-billion plan Tuesday to computerize patient medical records.

The three-year project will affect 8.4 million members in nine states, including 6.3 million in California. It marks a significant milestone in the health-care industry’s push to catch up with other industries by switching from paper to computer records.

Under the automated system devised by Epic Systems Corp., doctors -- and even patients -- will be able to access medical histories, test results, prescription information and other data. The program also will provide the most up-to-date medical science information available, along with suggestions for treatment and built-in checks to prevent errors.

“I do think this is a very important move in improving the quality of care, the consistency of care and reducing errors in the delivery of care,” said Ann Monroe, director of the California HealthCare Foundation’s quality initiative.

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Kaiser is not the first large-scale provider to automate its records: The U.S. Veterans Health Administration has been a leader in the field and other health-care plans and hospitals have made the switch.

Because of its scope, however, the Kaiser-Epic system could become the Model T of its industry -- not the first of its kind, but the first to reach masses of people.

And once millions of doctors and patients are able to access cutting-edge medical research and entire treatment histories in a snap, health-care experts said, other consumers and providers will demand similar access.

Until now, health care has been buried in paper.

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“When you think of banking and airline systems, it’s amazing,” said Helen Darling, chief executive of the Washington Business Group on Health. Darling spoke at the Kaiser news conference in Washington, D.C. “Frankly, I think this will push the health-care industry, perhaps it will shame them, into moving into the 21st century.”

Tuesday’s announcement of the Kaiser-Epic project illustrates not only how far medical technology has advanced, but how difficult such projects can be to bring to fruition.

The HMO initially sought to create an in-house program and partnered with International Business Machines in 1990 to automate patient information. Completion of that effort, however, would have cost the company $1 billion more than the Epic project and required twice as much time to implement, said George Halvorson, chairman and chief executive of Kaiser.

But the earlier efforts were invaluable in helping Kaiser determine its needs, Halvorson said. The HMO considers those earlier efforts and costs as part of its overall automation project.

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Monroe said the health-care industry resisted automation, but now can benefit from the efficiency it affords. “We’re seeing for the first time real major breakthroughs,” she said.


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